Research Data Leeds Repository

The Victorian Synthesizer

Bowers, John (2016) The Victorian Synthesizer. University of Leeds. [Dataset]

This item is part of the Alternative Histories of Electronic Music collection.

Dataset description

For some 15 years, I have had an ongoing project I refer to as The Victorian Synthesizer. The basic idea is to explore devices with the features we associate with hardware music synthesizers (oscillators, filters, LFOs, means to shape signals and modulate them, and so forth) but with means that were known to the Victorians (strictly 1837-1901). Some inventions, then, are strictly off-limits: oscillators made by feeding back an amplifier’s output to its input await analysis by von Barkhausen in 1921. Magnetism, mechanics, electrics (not electronics) and electro-mechanics become our preferred technical idioms. Moving-coil loudspeakers, though, were known to the Victorians (independently investigated by physicist, psychical researcher and occasional mystic, Oliver Lodge in 1898, and Ernst Siemens in 1877). Pairs of coils engaging and disengaging switch-gear form the basis of Elisha Gray’s musical telegraph (1874). My designs are much more minimal than Gray’s, though. I connect a battery’s terminal to a loudspeaker via crocodile clips and hear a pop as another wire between the battery and the speaker makes or breaks the circuit - an old sound engineer’s trick to check on a speaker’s health but actually, unrecognised, the basis of The Victorian Synthesizer. By incorporating a tilt switch into the circuitry and placing it on top of the speaker’s cone, self-oscillations, which can be surprisingly long-lived, are possible. By duplicating the circuit with two loudspeakers, tilt switches and power sources, and by crossing over the switches between speakers, cross-modulations are possible. The simplicity of the set-up invites an incremental experimentation - for example, adding nuts and bolts to rattle as they are bounced around by the cone or using a textured conductive surface (like a nail-file) to make and break the circuit. The hand can be introduced to manually restrain the apparatus and provide a filtering or enveloping effect. And so on. The Victorian Synthesizer has become a mainstay of instrument-making workshops by myself and others, including Nic Collins, who devotes a chapter to the technique in his Handmade Electronic Music textbook. AHEM provides an opportunity to review 15 years of experimentation, pedagogy, performance practice, and reflection on the very idea of electronic music prompted by The Victorian Synthesizer, and its further, perhaps philosophical, implications. I will discuss a range of constructions I and others have made adding to the basis provided by an impulsive pop as current flows through a coiled wire in a magnetic field. This will include hand-cranked synthesizers where coils in a motor/dynamo arrangement are listened to directly, as well as hybrids where fundamentalist Victoriana is interbred with digital technologies (including bizarre attempts to physically model The Victorian Synthesizer in software). I reflect on The Victorian Synthesizer as the most minimal electronic musical instrument possible - it must be, having only a power source and being its own means of musical-sonic reproduction - and hence speculatively reconstruct the history of electronic instruments as developments from this otherwise unrecognised Ur-instrument. Developing my previous work on the concept of ‘infra-instruments’, I characterise The Victorian Synthesizer as an Unmade, with due salutations to Marcel Duchamp, as a loose assemblage of components in provisional contact with each other, which through their relationships give a little bit of their natures away. Developing some remarks of David Tudor, I characterise performing The Victorian Synthesizer as a matter of ‘discovering and disclosing’ componential potentialities - a matter which I will discuss also in relationship to Graham Harman’s writings on Object Oriented Ontology and Bruno Latour’s compositionism. Like Tudor or Gordon Mumma’s circuitry, The Victorian Synthesizer puts the composer ‘inside’ electronics but, here, in a radical sense: there is no circuit diagram, there is only contingency. The idea of an ‘escape from the diagrammatic’ will be discussed in relationship to the thought of Deleuze and Guattari and Tim Ingold’s writing’s on lines and meshworks. These may seem like grandiose claims: that from a battery popping a loudspeaker a whole philosophy is unfurled. Perhaps an academic hoax or at least high pretentiousness. Perhaps. But, equally, that could be my whole point. By reductions and unmakings, we can expose ourselves to what is taken for granted or ignored, perhaps at our peril, in technologies, commodities and great works. We can start again, we can think again, make new histories and lineages, and conceive of new futures. Let us begin with a pop.

Subjects: W000 - Creative arts & design > W300 - Music
W000 - Creative arts & design > W300 - Music > W310 - Musicianship/performance studies > W316 - Electronic/electro-acoustic music performance
Divisions: Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Cultures > School of Music
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Date deposited: 27 Jul 2017 19:16



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